low-standard lunacy

In 2002, then-President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, a comprehensive measure designed to improve education standards for primary school students across the country. Among the Act’s focal points were improving student performance on standardized reading and math exams to make sure students performed at or above grade level. Results seemed positive; reading and math scores rose in the time since NCLB’s passage.

There are several caveats, however. Among them, many states lowered (as opposed to raised) education standards to make sure students met the mark outlined in NCLB. This, combined with a damning Education Department report cited in this article, shows that more students are falling behind, not getting ahead.

An excerpt from the article summarizes the Education Department’s findings:

The report by the department’s statistics arm compared state achievement levels to achievement levels on NAEP. It found that many states deemed children to be proficient or on grade level when they would rate “below basic,” or lacking even partial mastery, in reading and math under the NAEP standards.

Worse still:

…the report said more states lowered standards than raised them from 2005 to 2007.

This, I believe, is due to “teaching to the test” instead of enhancing existing school curricula. Given that standardized tests are a barometer of student success in reading and math, it’s no surprise that school systems would focus on them. However, as the article suggests, such has come through lowered standards and easier curricula, which inflates student performance.

Such may look good statistically, especially for politicians who cite “improved” reading and math scores in justifying their implementation of education “reform”. Reality, however, is far more unsettling.

Again, students get the shaft by way of mediocre education and a lack of preparedness for the real world.

Not all states, however, have implemented “easier” curricula; the article cites North Carolina, which implemented higher standards. However, even this presented a challenge; in the words of an N.C. education official:

…it was tough to explain that higher standards meant lower scores.”That was a really difficult job for us to do and communicate to the public that students did not all of a sudden become very ignorant”

How can higher standards yield lower test scores (not just in North Carolina, for the record)? Personally, I believe it’s due to a curriculum that emphasizes passing instead of understanding (yes, it’s that word again). Combine this with pressure to raise standardized test scores and you have a recipe for disaster – a watering down of education, which is exactly what is happening in many states.

What then, is the solution? Methinks schools and education departments nationwide must adopt higher – not lower – standards of education, even if students struggle at first. Such struggles, in my mind, represent a challenge to revise curricula to emphasize understanding of core concepts. This way, students will not only pass standardized exams, but keep the knowledge they learned and carry it over to the next level (whether academic or professional) with minimal difficulty.

The federal government has also taken a stand; it has allocated $5 billion in stimulus money for education reform. Included in this amount are grants to states that adopt standards proposed by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The question that comes to my mind is whether these standards will improve the quality of education in America’s schools; I certainly hope so.

In short, raising the bar is much better than creating an illusion of achievement, which is a great disservice to America’s students – and America itself.

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